Windows 8 is more than just a major refresh to Windows 7.
Unlike other manufacturers constant stream of updates to their platforms, Microsoft likes to go for the big bang approach.
There’s a lot of competition around too – since Win 7 the world has changed, with Android tablets, iPads and smartphones flooding the market. This, then, is Microsoft’s big chance to take on Google and Apple. Fortunately, Windows 8 has arrived in full force, with an armada of ancillary products in tow.
Microsoft’s deployment of the new Windows platform across desktops, laptops, tablets, hybrids, and smartphones constitutes a major push to make Windows 8 your defining computing experience regardless of your hardware persuasion. The linchpin is the new Microsoft Account sign-in (formerly Live ID). Through a single username and password, your Microsoft Account taps into the cloud and establishes common preferences among all the Windows-based hardware and services you may use.
Microsoft has also completely rethought the initial experience – the process by which we start interacting with a computer when its screen comes on – and replaced the “desktop” with a series of large tiles which you swipe (with a finger, if you’re using a tablet or touchscreen laptop, or mouse) from side to side. “Modern UI”, as it’s called, involves big tiles without the fussy “Close” or “Minimise” or “Maximise” buttons.
Let’s be clear though, the old Windows desktop is still there. It’s just hidden one layer down – and if you want to jump down into it there’s a perfectly good fireman’s pole in the form of a tile called “Desktop”. Click or touch that, and you’re back in Windows 7. For Microsoft, Windows 8 is a huge leap forward – and yet it’s doing it while holding onto all the baggage of the “old” Windows going back decades.
The tiles also change to reflect live information, such as news stories, tweets, weather updates, and so forth. This gives the OS a dynamic feel, very different to Mac OS X Mountain Lion. Overall, it’s a helpful, innovative experience.
Since touch is the cornerstone of Windows 8—regardless of whether you actually have a touch-responsive display on your chosen device—Microsoft is pushing third-party developers to take the next big step in app creation. And the new Windows Store is the only place you can download “Windows 8 apps” (the Start screen-centric programs previously known as Metro apps).
The Windows Store also gives such users a simple and secure entry point for downloading apps that have passed stringent certification from Microsoft itself. Sure, an app might ultimately stink, but at least users now have strong assurance that the software won’t muck up their systems. The built-in Windows Store only has about 10,000 apps so far – but it’s growing fast.
To construct a user experience that works fairly seamlessly across desktops, tablets, and smartphones, Microsoft had to make some compromises however, and these trade-offs are affecting desktop users the most. Although it’s relatively easy to operate a touchscreen-oriented interface on a device with an actual touchscreen, it’s not so easy to translate touch gestures to the world of mice and keyboards.
Once you’ve accepted that however, you’ll find that Windows 8 runs quicker, more securely, and much more like the operating systems we’re used to on tablets and smartphones – which are themselves becoming the principal way people do computing. If you include them in your totals, PCs are barely a majority of the computers now in use worldwide.
It is quite obvious that the company wants to regain its “cool” with Windows 8. Indeed, Windows has long been synonymous with a mundane experience centred on “productivity.” While Apple offers a visually slick, intuitive, user-friendly experience on the desktop, Microsoft has stuck to the Windows Way. Walk into any college dorm, tech startup, or big-city coffee shop, and you’ll see an ocean of MacBooks, all running OS X. Younger users and creative types favor Apple’s computing environment. It’s undeniable.
Whether or not Windows can stem the tide with their latest offering remains to be seen. Either way, Microsoft had to do something.
And I have a sneaking feeling this risk might just pay off.
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